The death of a controversy?

Non-news about a "controversy" on life support, an inconsequential U-turn and the unfortunate fact that schadenfreude won't save the climate.

Magnus Nome
1 August 2012

When scientists come to a surprising conclusion, they don’t pick up the phone and call a newspaper´s gossip column. They try to disprove the results themselves, then submit them to the harsh criticism of colleagues through the peer-review process.

The conclusion Richard Muller and his team came to wasn’t in the least bit surprising to the vast majority of climate scientists. But since he was one of exceedingly few actual scientists who had embraced the label “climate sceptic”, and since he was receiving funding from the infamous Koch brothers, it was nevertheless considered a bombshell.

“Call me a converted sceptic”, he wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times. He concludes not only that global warming is real, but also that humans are its cause. And he can even assert this, he says, with greater certainty than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has done.

So, does this kill the “climate change controversy”? Of course not.

Number one, there is no controversy to kill. While there are many aspects to quibble over (and I mean that in the best possible way, this is how we refine our understanding of the climate process and magnitude of the problem); and while we’ve yet to decide on how best to deal with the crisis - the conclusions dramatically unveiled in the NYT have been known to everyone within the field for decades, the level of doubt steadily decreasing as more data is gathered and studied. In a more rational world, the NYT would find no reason to publish such underwhelming statements as if they were news.

Number two, there is a faux controversy that should be dead but is being kept artificially alive by the American right. The sponsors are few in number but very rich and strategically important, functioning as major roadblocks to effective coordinated international action. The argument over whether we humans are causing climate change should be in the same file as the miasma/germ controversy. But it lives and breathes in an iron lung forged by ideology and business interests, powered by money and greed. This is not the kind of machine that can be turned off by some scientist, some know-it-all guy from Berkeley, who – talk radio hosts in all likelihood already fuming - probably thinks we should all live on lettuce alone and cycle to work on bikes made of recycled hemp. His conversion might chip away at a corner of the cock-sureness, the number of voices that suggest switching off the argument's life-support could increase. But the incentives to insist ‘the jury is still out’ remain. There is no reason to believe that the great pretending won’t go on for some time yet. Big lies oft repeated are still effective.

There has been criticism that the Muller team's conclusions were released before a peer-reviewed paper has been published, a very legitimate point - though giggle-inducing when it comes from quarters who, as often as not, can’t tell data from anecdote, trend from variation, or scientist from sock puppet.

Muller’s conversion is welcome, and the Koch money adds delicious schadenfreude, but whether his peers find it wanting or not is of little importance: he has discovered the Earth is rather round.

At openDemocracy we want to increase our coverage of climate issues. Not the fake controversy, but how we as a society must change to save the biosphere as well as the progress we’ve made so far as a species; and the obstacles we face in that endeavour.

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